United Airlines is poised to merge with Continental should the merger between Delta and Northwest go through. The Chicago Tribune article states that Continental’s CEO, Larry Kellner, would be the head of the newly formed airline, with Glenn Tilton, United’s CEO, taking a spot as chairman of the board. Discussions are starting to sound serious, even though a location for the merged airline has not been decided. There are a few elements of a merger with United that I find very appealing, inclusion in the Star Alliance, more widebody aircraft, service to Australia and New Zealand, and possible introduction of Economy Plus seating in a portion of the fleet. There are also a few unmentioned hurdles to jump over, including hubs, service, and airport lounges.
The possibility of Continental, or whatever the merged airline is called, being included in the Star Alliance will be a huge boost to the destinations available and the reward travel options. Star Alliance partners include Lufthansa, ANA, Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, bmi, Austrian Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines and South African Airways (see, the options are plentiful). Why is this a good thing? Well, for one, instead of connecting multiple places to go to say, South Africa, you would be able to do an overnight flight to South America and then a direct flight to Johannesburg. It also offers protection for travelers who encounter bad weather or delays during their trip. Headed to New Zealand from Phoenix? Let’s say your flight is delayed and you miss your Air New Zealand connection, no problem, you will be automatically rebooked on a United flight as long as there is room.
United’s large widebody fleet will help keep the route network strong and allow more capacity from different cities to new markets. The difference in fleets would lead to some interesting consolidation, including getting rid of United’s and Continental’s 737-500s in favor of keeping the Airbus 319s and 320s. With the mix of fleets there would also be the ability to do away with some of the less desirable regional jets (CRJ200). Having more widebody aircraft would also open up the possibility for more transcontinental flights being flown using larger planes, allowing more comfort and first/business class seating. Along with the widebody fleet comes service to Australia and New Zealand, something that Continental has only offered through island-hopper service to Cairns. Both of these points are huge for Continental flyers, who are used to single-aisle aircraft across the country, and little to no routes to Australia.
The last big perk of a merger is the potential for an economy plus section of seating on international and transcontinental flights. I’ve been a huge proponent of E+ (economy plus) since United and other carriers introduced it. The increase in legroom for a slightly higher price is more than worth it on long flights. Continental’s reluctance to make changes to their aircraft due to the introduction of a “sub-fleet” has been discouraging, but with a merger, this may become a reality, making a ton of business travelers happy, especially those on economy class budgets.
Of course, with all of the good news, comes a little bad news. First is United’s service, or lack thereof. As an airline, they are known for poor customer service, to the point that frequent flyers are somewhat used to it. Continental is the antithesis of bad service compared to United and my fear is, United may rub off on the Continental staff a little too much. If you have ever flown through Newark you know that the different Continental staff can be surly at times, so I wonder what will happen if United’s staff start mingling with these folks. However, if Larry Kellner has his way and the Continental method of training is carried throughout the company then it could be great news.
Airport lounges are another place that United falls short. I have only been in a RCC once, but that experience was enough. If Continental can spread the image and services of the President’s Club, the better this merger will be. Free Wi-Fi for members, good food options, and free drinks all would be welcome additions to the Red Carpet Club. While the additional locations available by including the Red Carpet Clubs would be very gladly welcomed by Continental flyers.
Lastly comes the topic of hubs. If Continental and United were to merge tomorrow, the list of hubs would be as follows:
That is a huge list and the first to go would more than likely be LAX, with CLE and DEN seeing a drastic reduction in traffic. I can see Cleveland being used more and more later on for transatlantic flights but the need for DEN would fade. Los Angeles just wouldn’t be necessary anymore and United has been dwindling traffic there over the past few years.
On paper a merger of Continental and United looks great but there are caveats of such a move and I’m sure as more details are released there will be some skepticism and apprehension.